By Abraha Belai
MEKELLE, Northern Ethiopia – Throughout Tigrai region, life is a dreary: every segment of the society is under the tight control of TPLF, once the Khmer Rouge equivalent of the Horn of Africa nation.
TPLF has a dreadful past (though little is reported), and the legacy of fear persists to this very day, while elsewhere in Addis, the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, bores his parliament with day-long lectures about almost everything: democracy, human rights, economy, agro-engineering, and hey, who cares – advances in Space Technology too. But back in Tigrai, as in the rest of the country, life remains the furthest from the rosy picture Meles paints in Addis: sad, lonely and empty as it was in a remote Albanian village under Enver Hoxa.
If years have been counted since the death of communism in Eastern Europe and very much of the world, a Stalinist rule is very much alive and kicking in Tigrai region, the seat and birthplace of TPLF. Often times, entire settlements are hauled to state-run projects like terracing and dam construction. Young and old, expectant mothers or frail grannies toil all day long under the blistering sun. There is no court of appeal here. TPLF owns everything: from the petty items like a bar of soap, oil, and kerosene to fertilizers for a patch of land on a wind-swept mountain side.
In this recent past, the government has been holding meetings throughout the towns in Tigrai region, and the center of attention is Siye Abraha, a prominent ex-TPLF official who was released from six-year imprisonment, and is now campaigning in the United States to forge unity and reconciliation among Ethiopians.
Many TPLF officials were purged in 2001 when they accused Meles Zenawi of betraying Ethiopia during the aborted 1998-2000 War with Eritrea. Meles almost immediately disenfranchized his opponents, while sending Siye to prison on corruption charges that a judge, Ms. Bertukan Mideksa, found baseless, and set Siye free. But Meles threw Siye back into jail, decreed a new law overnight, and locked him up for six solid years. Public protests for the release of the popular Kinijit leaders is believed to have prompted the Zenawi regime to release Siye as well.
Running as independent with no party affiliation whatsoever, Siye has now plunged himself back into politics, and the ruling party, which uses “fear” as a deterrent force, is firing warning shots throughout Tigrai region.
Cadres loyal to the Prime Minister warn the local people in Tigrai towns against what they call the ‘dangerous campaign’ being waged by Siye Abraha to rally Ethiopians against TPLF and the interests of the Tigrai people.
In Mekelle, the cadres warned that the government would not wait until Siye and his Kinijit collaborators succeed to demolish TPLF, which they refer to as the ‘people’s party’, or woudib in the Tigrian language. A few individuals pleaded with the cadres to cut down the number of propaganda sessions. One elder sarcastically urged the cadres to end future meetings, because people had enough of them by now they know what is good and bad for them.
In Abiy Adi, Tembien, the hometown of the former defense minister, a huge army deployed there to defend the country in the event of war with neighboring Eritrea, was lectured on the “dangers of Siye Abraha and his Neftegna forces.” The army remained insensitive to the propaganda, and there was no single individual who volunteered to comment or field a question.
Also in the same Tembien town, residents who attended the meeting asked government officials to provide the public with a video that shows Siye speaking against the interests of the Tigrai people, as alleged by the cadres.
In the US, it is a different story though. In Crystal City, Virginia, Siye on January 5, 2008 addressed about 700 Ethiopians of all shades of political persuasion, and his speech was centered around unity as opposed to the politics of ethnicity that the government in power promotes fervently.
Given the controversy of having been an executive of the ruling party TPLF, which many Ethiopians resent as a “tool that turned Ethiopia into a landlocked nation and introduced the politics of ethnicity – which is feared by the public as a time-bomb that would fragment their country,” Siye acknowledged responsibility.
“Of course I should be accountable for blunders committed while I was a government official. But today is not the time for assessing past deeds. Our country is in a precarious situation,” the 55-year-old Siye said, “let’s leave vindictive politics behind us, and work with trust and hope for a better future.”
Siye’s plea for reconciliation as opposed to the politics of war, hate and division looks to have paid off among mainstream Ethiopians.
Says Abebe Belew, a radio host in Washington, DC: “The transformation is complete: from a famed army commander to a seasoned political orator.”